free software doesn’t mean zero cost, I also realise that sometimes, in particular for smaller charities of course, you just don’t have a budget for a new system. So what should you do then?
Below are the key things I believe you need to consider and act on in such circumstances. They won’t cost you anything except your time and attention. Although even with that said, I struggle to truly say the whole implementation will be free. There are always additional costs: you will still need PCs, an internet connection, probably hosting for your database, maybe additional software and so on – so you either need to have a great benefactor or be a great fundraiser/negotiator, otherwise you will still need to spend money on those things.
Do note that these tips are primarily aimed at organisations who really don’t and cannot expect to have an appropriate budget for their database – so if you are a charity of any reasonable size but you are struggling to acquire a budget for a new system then, even though the following may help you, my first piece of advice is to re-visit your business case and determine why it isn’t deemed to be so important at your organisation. There is no point – for any size organisation – in getting any system, free or paid-for, which is not right for you, even if it is the cheapest one, even if it is free.
1. Get the basics right before you start looking for a new system
Remember that any database software is an enabler to help your fundraising strategy. Ensure you know what your strategy is now and for the next few years in order that you will know which CRM system is appropriate for you and what you need from it. And remember too that the database software is only one aspect of any database implementation – don’t think that you can just install a database and that will solve all your answers! i.e. a database is only as good as the data in it (i.e. how you collect it, data consistency/accuracy etc), it will only be used as well as your staff are trained to use it and with appropriate processes, and you will still need fast enough hardware and, if appropriate, a fast enough internet connection.
2. Treat your process for getting your new system as a ‘formal procurement process’, even if you’re not spending any money on it
I would still advise you create a document showing your requirements, I would still advise you research and find out about possible suppliers and, if appropriate, people who can help you (see below), even try prototyping one or two of the systems (assuming they're free, c.f. below), create a plan, engage the rest of your organisation and so on. Don’t just start using the first free system you find just because it is free.
3. Ideally, use a well-used package or CRM system – not a bespoke development
One of the key problems which charities have suffered from over the years is when a (well meaning) volunteer or “someone’s friend” has created a bespoke database in Access/Filkemaker etc. The problem with this is that they may not be around forever, they won’t necessarily understand your needs and they are re-inventing the wheel.
I would therefore look at systems such as Salesforce (free for the first 10 users), Zoho, CiviCRM, SugarCRM. They will all need time and assistance with setting up (see below) but they are all good, established systems; and they all have good online communities to help you. This means that if you or any other key people in your organisation leave in the future, then someone else will be able to pick-up your implementation much more easily than if it was a bespoke development. And you will get support and future enhancements. They are also good systems so that if in the future you increase your needs (and budget) then you will be able to build on them potentially without needing to change system again.
4. Keep it simple
Complexity (and over-complexity) brings cost. If you are looking for a free system then I will generally assume you do not need sophistication. If you do require more advanced solutions then free may not be right for you. So keep it simple: it will be quicker to implement, easier to use, easier to support and change in the future and you will get better results. And that has to be your ultimate goal.
5. If you don’t understand databases, don’t set it up yourself
Whilst I normally don’t advocate the use of volunteers for any significant database implementation, if you have never used a database before or you don’t know best practises in this area or what they can really do for you, then find someone who does and get them to help you. You may have a database-savvy staff member in which case they may be able to help. Otherwise/additionally, there are a number of places you can find free support and assistance from professional IT staff, including IT4Communities, the Do-it Volunteering database or even the WCIT. Or for really small charities, maybe even approach your local college for students requiring work experience? And don’t forget your trustees for contacts and input!
6. Document everything – the configuration of your new system and your processes
During and after the implementation, if you get someone to document what they have done then anyone else following them will be able to make changes and support your databasse much more easily. If you get someone to create proper, written down processes for you, then you will be able to use the system more efficiently and your current and future new staff can be trained.
7. Commit to the project
I have come across too many organisations who have started to use a free database without really committing to it, and in no time it has become a white elephant (all be it a no/low-cost one). But that won’t help you, your charity, your fundraising or ultimately the cause you are trying to support. So don’t think that just because you are spending no money on it, it will all work beautifully, immediately, first time and without any of your time. You won’t be able to press one button and get the database to tell you who are your best donors, or send a targeted email campaign or find out who you should be speaking to next week if you don’t do the groundwork. Sorry! Commit - it's really worth it.